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Wednesday, 25 May 2011

How [not] to Defraud a Victorian Railway Company

Being large corporations, the biggest of their day, it is unsurprising that the railways were highly susceptible to attempts to defraud them. All sorts of individuals attempted to steal from the railways by devious means, including railway employees, passengers, traders and others. Thus, this post will detail some of the interesting cases that have been found in 19th century newspapers which show how the individuals tried, and failed, to commit fraud.

In 1849 John Coulson was a booking clerk in the employ of the Bolton, Blackburn, Clitheroe and West Yorkshire Railway company based at Over Darwen. The company in its formative years seemed to be one of the first to offer cheap tickets to holiday resorts, and it offered them to Blackpool. At the court case in Preston in September, the General Manager of the line, Terence Flanagan, stated that he had become alerted to the fact that something wasn’t right when he noticed that the traffic returns from Over Darwen were less than those from other stations by some considerable margin. Indeed, Coulson’s return sent to the Audit office on Sunday the 12th of August, recorded that he had booked 10 men and 34 women and children to Blackpool. Yet, the porter at the station, Thomas Griffith, swore that more people than that had been booked from the station. Coulson had no chance after that, and seventeen other witnesses were brought forward who had between them purchased 20 tickets on that day. Furthermore, it was revealed that he was discharged previously from the employ of the Board of Excise for collusion. It was unknown how much he got away with.[1] However, he was eventually sentenced to six months imprisonment with hard labour.[2]

Probably the most common attempts to defraud railway companies were when individuals attempted to travel without a ticket. In May 1858, William Byrd came up before Bromsgrove Pettys Sessions for such an offence. He was known to Midland Railway staff for being a fruitier and dealer in Birmingham. Indeed, he had secured as a trader a free pass for the western part of the company’s line ‘to enable him to visit markets.’ On the 21st April he had arrived at Camp Hill Station without a ticket. When James Goodchild, the inspector, challenged him he said he had paid his fare at Bromsgrove Station. An investigation soon proved this to be untrue. He had in fact joined the train at Worcester and had avoided paying 11s 0.5d. Byrd pleaded guilty and said he was sorry for the offence. On account of his ‘circumstances in life’ and ingratitude to the company, he had the heaviest fine possible inflicted on him by the court of £2, plus £1 2s 4d in costs. Interestingly, at the trial Mr Draycott, a Midland Railway Inspector, stated that ‘attempts were made daily to defraud railway companies.’[3]

One of the oddest cases of fraud being committed against a railway company relates to twenty individuals who tried to impersonate militia men in Lancaster in 1869. The men, from various parts of the county, had been simultaneously caught on the 31st of May ‘endeavouring to obtain by false pretences’ from Bryan Thornhill a ‘pair of boots, two shirts and one pair of socks and one shilling and threepence.’ Presumably, they had impersonated militia men in the process of being called up in order to obtain these items. All twenty of them pleaded guilty and were imprisoned for three months with hard labour. However, in passing sentence the chairman of the petty sessions stated that all of them must have ‘defrauded the railway company in making their journeys to Lancaster.’ Indeed, real militia men would have been entitled to free or reduced fare travel and presumably the defendants took advantage of this. However, it is unknown whether any were charged in relation to these offences.[4]

The Abergele railway disaster on 20th August 1868 was the worst accident on Britain’s railways up to that point. At 12.39 pm a London and North Western Railway (L&NWR) mail train ran into some runaway wagons, causing the train to overturn and setting light to some paraffin oil in the wagons. The ensuing fire enveloped the locomotive and first three carriages, and 33 individuals died, with many more being injured.[5] Some days later Henry Ford contacted a solicitor by the name of Fox to prosecute a claim for £4000 against the L&NWR for injuries he had sustained in the accident. Fox wrote the L&NWR stating that:

‘Our client, Mr Henry Ford, of Patricroft, was in the train at the time of the accident on the Holyhead Railway and was a first-class passenger from Chester to Dublin. He was very much shaken and injured by the shock and has found it necessary to consult a surgeon, who says he is suffering from concussion of the spine, and that he must remain in bed for some time to give him any opportunity of recovering. Mr Ford will claim compensation of the company in respect of his injuries, but it is impossible at present to state the extent and nature of them. If you wish the surgeon of the company to see Mr Ford, please put him in communication with us, and we will arrange for his doing so.’

The surgeons of the company visited Mr Ford and judged that he had indeed been injured. Thus, the £4000 was duly paid. Yet, one of the company’s superintendents was dissatisfied with the claim and commenced an action at the spring assizes to reclaim the money. It was at this point that Ford disappeared. Some weeks later he was met in the street in London, apparently in good health and was arrested. The case at the Manchester assizes on 16th January 1869 brought forward testimonies that on the day of the accident he had been seen sitting in his lodgings in Patricroft reading a newspaper. Furthermore, a day or two afterwards he was seen in good health in his lodgings. Lastly, his landlord had paid an unexpected visit in the days after the accident and found him standing in his rooms. Ford was found guilty for trying to defraud the company, and was sentenced to eighteen months imprisonment.

While I have shown some of the more interesting cases I found, there can be no doubt the majority of the cases of fraud were where the individuals did not pay the full fare, or paid no fare at all. Therefore, it would be interesting to know how much money the railways lost in the manner, and how they attempted to counteract it.


[1] The Preston Guardian etc, Saturday, September 29, 1849; Issue 1935

[2] The Preston Guardian etc, Saturday, October 20, 1849; Issue 1938

[3] Berrow's Worcester Journal, Saturday, May 15, 1858, pg; 8 Issue 8113

[4] The Lancaster Gazette, and General Advertiser for Lancashire, Westmorland, Yorkshire, &c., Saturday, July 03, 1869, pg. 2, Issue 4292


[6] Liverpool Mercury etc., Thursday, August 12, 1869; Issue 6723

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